Sigur Rós – Kveikur

Sigur Rós‘ interaction with their musical peers is quite one-sided: metal bands reference them to showcase their softer side, while pop acts do the same to demonstrate a broader musical interest. They serve as a reference point for electronic producers intrigued by mystical elements, and their music often finds a place in movies when directors seek a shortcut to celestial beauty. However, with the exception of the Animal Collective-inspired “Gobbledigook,” not a single Sigur Rós song suggests a contemporary outside influence. They had become confined by their uniqueness, evident in the grand Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust of 2008 and the somewhat ethereal Valtari of the previous year, leaving them perceived more as a collection of New Age signifiers than a human entity.

Valtari felt like a dead end, and indeed, it marked the conclusion of the Sigur Rós we once knew. Following the subsiding breakup rumors, the departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, and a switch to a new label, Sigur Rós returned unexpectedly and with unprecedented vitality in the form of Kveikur. This record serves as a powerful response, a bracing mix of pummeling post-rock, eerie hauntology, and concentrated pop splendor. Finally, Sigur Rós acknowledges their impact by surpassing their followers at their own game.

The translation of “Kveikur” to “candlewick” and its phonetic resemblance to “quake” is fitting, as this seventh album is their most explosive and action-packed. Whether compensating for Sveinsson’s departure or simply tired of receiving minimal credit, bassist Georg Holm and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason define Kveikur with their rhythm section. Wisely, it repositions Jónsi’s inimitable vocals as the focus, reclaiming their place after being predominantly used as texture on Valtari.

Following the ambient tranquility of Valtari, the deep drum hits in the initial minute of “Brennisteinn” disrupt Sigur Rós’ artistic stasis dramatically, akin to a cannonball. The heavy metal elements take on metaphorical and symbolic roles, signifying Sigur Rós’ transformation from an inanimate object into a vengeful, destructive force. Sigur Rós fully commits to stress-testing their sound thereafter, with distorted bass on the title track reminiscent of drilling oil from the ocean floor. The feedback shrieks in “Brennisteinn” feel elegant and sleek, akin to fine cutlery on black marble. “Hrafntinna” is literally a metal song, composed of fractured cymbals, sonorous brass, and the whinny of horsehair on steel guitar strings. Over its six minutes, there’s a filmic, storytelling quality that suggests Jónsi could and should be doing soundtrack work for weightier movies than We Bought A Zoo.

However, Sigur Rós always had the structure for heavy metal muscle, creating 10-minute songs with elfin vocals from a guy who wears a fringed jacket and plays his guitar with a cello bow. Despite their ethereal beauty, Agaetis Byrjun and ( ) are undeniably heavy records. It’s not Sigur Rós suddenly donning Viking helmets and playing out dry-ice fantasies like Robert Plant in The Song Remains the Same; think more along the lines of Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest or Portishead’s Third. Kveikur, with its natural feel, goes beyond a sonic overhaul. This is Sigur Rós internally reconstituted, integrating new verbs and actions. It’s more than sounds; it’s an assertion of power, conveying immediate anger rather than patient catharsis, a soundtrack for lifting weights rather than zoning out. Jónsi’s vocals maintain their extraterrestrial shimmer, now playing the avenging archangel rather than a friendly ghost. After 15 years of evoking Iceland’s beauty, Kveikur reflects the endless winters, cratered economy, and the frightening suicide rate.

Even without the same cultivated mystery or demanding nature of Agaetis Byrjun or ( ), Kveikur is a triumphant return, tapping into its predecessors’ emotional wellspring. It’s a Sigur Rós album that can be casually or intensely listened to, effective as both a spiritual experience and pop music. The overwhelming, widescreen grandeur is conveyed with the immediacy of a 50-minute rock record.

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